Pluto enthusiasts, get excited! As I type this article, New Horizons continues to inch its way toward no man's land. Within the next year, the state of the art spacecraft, launched in January of 2006, will come within 6,200 miles (10,000 km) of Pluto and within 17,000 miles (27,000 km) of Charon, Pluto's equally fascinating moon. Once it arrives mid-2015, it will give us the very first up-close look at the Plutonian system, and perhaps jump-start a new round of that whole pesky planethood debate, but that's another issue altogether. Until then, these new images will have to hold all of us over.
The batch of 12 images, which were captured from July 19 through July 24, show the Pluto-Charon system from a distance of just 265 million miles (426 million kilometers) away (some of the shots were taken a few additional million miles away). The team then took the separate frames and stitched them into a composite GIF, that shows their orbital dance in unprecedented resolution (not just with the Plutonian system, but in general). According to New Horizons' principle investigator Alan Stern (who is also the founder of Uwingu), "The image sequence showing Charon revolving around Pluto set a record for close-range imaging of Pluto — they were taken from 10 times closer to the planet than the Earth is," But we’ll smash that record again and again, starting in January, as approach operations begin."
Each shot was taken using New Horizons' highly sophisticated on-board telescope, dubbed the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), showing Pluto's largest moon, Charon, as it nearly completes one full rotation around the dwarf-planet. Regardless of the distance or the vantage point, Charon always lurks approximately 11,200 miles (18,000 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface (For the sake of comparison, on average, the moon is approximately 239,000 miles/385,000 km from Earth), leading
astronomers to question whether or not Pluto should be considered a dwarf planet with five orbiting satellites (including Charon), or if Pluto and Charon comprise their own binary system with four additional satellites.
The latter is a logical conclusion based on the fact that they are so close together, they share a common center of mass (known as the barycenter). The images used to comprise the GIF actually emphasize the barycenter of the Pluto/Charon system.
To add to the excitement, the team behind the New Horizons mission recently made images taken by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) public. Said images were taken in an attempt to make sure the spacecraft's arrival meets its deadline, as the projected date can be compromised if the spacecraft ventures too far off course and its path is not corrected in due time.
Sadly, the animated GIF might be one of the last things captured by New Horizons until it reaches Pluto, as it will be put into hibernation mode shortly after traveling beyond the elliptical orbit of Neptune (possibly on August 29th). It won't be reactivated until December the 16th, when the details of the flyby begin to be arranged.
About The Plutonian System: